Our meadows have been absolutely beautiful this summer. I have been putting together a video of our meadows over the course of the summer, right up to haymaking last weekend.
Our woods are probably at their most beautiful during the spring. This week we welcomed the Royal Forestry Society here on a visit, and I filmed some video as we went round, adding some stills and a commentary afterwards. This really gives you a feel for the woods and their wildlife. It lasts about 11 minutes, but in reality it takes about an hour to walk round.
This year seems to have been a really special one for sunsets at the woods. Following on from the unreal skies I posted a short while ago, we had another stunning and unexpected sunset just before Christmas.
I had actually just gone to the woods to feed the birds, and only took my little camera with me. As I hung up the last of the feeders, I thought that the light was looking quite good, so I decided to go for a little walk. The sunset was not that promising, and a bank of cloud was coming over, but I decided to wait a few minutes longer. And then the sky started to turn pink and orange.
The colour started to develop until the whole sky was scarlet. I headed down to the ponds to try and catch some reflections in the surface of the water. I was rewarded with some great colour and photos.
The colour started to turn from orange/red to magenta, pink and purple as I walked round the bottom of Betty’s Wood and up through the meadows back towards the main woods. Even as I arrived at the main clearing, there was still some pink in the sky, and I caught the last rays of the sun before heading home.
The colours were totally unreal – as if a child had some pots of bright-coloured paints and mixed them all up and threw them across the sky. Winter is a really special time of year for sunsets. What has been most interesting this year is that the best colour has been in the north-east, and not in the south-west where the sun is actually setting.
I hope you are not bored of seeing pictures of winter sunsets – I never tire of their beauty.
A few days ago, I was at the woods at sunset, when an absolutely astonishing sunset began to happen. As the sun started to go down in the south-west, as it does at this time of year, the clouds opposite, in the north-east, started to take on an amazing colour.
Slowly the colour began to get progressively more intense, and the colour started to change from yellow, through orange, to pink. The clouds looked like a scene from the movie “Independence Day”. Every cloud seemed to be affected and the sky looked as if it were on fire.
Every minute, the scene was changing, as it faded through shades of red and pink to darkness.
I have never seen a sky like it over the woods. It was quite incredible.
A video describing the process of meadow maintenance that we undertook recently – harrowing, top-seeding and rolling.
Our wildflower meadows were originally sown in 2010, as part of Betty’s Wood. We used the best wildflowers and grass mix that we could afford at the time, but there have inevitably been compromises and setbacks along the way. First of all, we had a drought in 2011, which meant that not only did the meadows not grow well, but we didn’t have much time to attend to them, as we had to spend all our time watering the 6000 little trees planted at the same time. In 2012, everything grew quite well, but we were unable to find anybody who could cut and bale the hay for us. We were only able to cut properly and bale the hay in 2013.
This year, unusually warm spring conditions combined with lots of water in the soil led to a massive growth of grass – so tall that it was actually taller than me (OK, I’m not very tall, but even so…over 160cm tall). The wildflowers were struggling.
Some plants have done well – clover, birdsfoot trefoil and knapweed. Some patches of yellow rattle are keeping the grass in check. The meadows have been successful in attracting a good variety of butterflies and moths to our site. But overall, we felt that the meadows needed improvement.
This year we decided to top-seed the meadows. We got as much advice as we could before starting. We cut the re-growth from haymaking to about 6 inches /15cm. This would allow the harrow to get into the ground and create some bare patches.
We then harrowed with a chain harrow. The aim of this is to chew up the grass, create some bare areas into which wildflower seeds can be sown, and to give them a chance before the grass comes back next spring.
We top-seeded with a wildflower mix that we had specially recommended by Butterfly Conservation and designed for our soil. This includes wildflowers that should bloom from March (cowslip) to September (daisies, yarrow and knapweed), giving a long season for pollinators. Our meadows are fairly small (between 2/3 and 1 1/2 acres), so we used a hand spreader – obviously if they were larger, we’d need a mechanical spreader.
We then harrowed again, to ensure no seed was left on top of the leaves. Finally we rolled the seed in with a Cambridge roll. This will push the seed into the soil and stop it from blowing away.
You’d normally do this maintenance earlier in the year – usually in September. However with the very dry weather, the clay soil was like concrete. Conditions are just about right now – warm, but also damp enough to prevent the harrow jumping off the surface and allow it to do its job. The soil is also still warm enough for the seeds to germinate and start to grow before winter, thus giving the wildflowers a good start on the grass in the spring. At least that is the hope!
We also have a video, demonstrating the process.
I love photographing insects. Not just the showy ones, but the small and insignificant ones too. Butterflies, dragonflies, moths, damselflies, overflies, ladybirds, bugs, flies – all of them are interesting and challenging.
Actually, I use very simple equipment, but insect photography IS one of those specialist areas where it does help to have the right equipment – a digital SLR and a macro lens. I have my SLR (Canon EOS5D Mark III), and a few lenses, of which my favourite is the 100mm f2.8L IS Macro. I also have a 70-300mm f4 L IS zoom and a 300mm f2.8L IS prime lens. The 300mm is big and heavy, and I don’t use it often. I stick to the first two lenses which I can carry easily. The 100mm lens is absolutely without compare in terms of image quality, but does require you to get pretty close to your subject if you want the insect to appear a decent size. It is also f2.8, which gives the opportunity to blur out the background if you wish. The 300mm zoom or prime have the advantage of a longer reach, which is useful for shots over water, or where the insects are easily-disturbed. The disadvantage is that the longer reach is no advantage if there is undergrowth in the way, and there often is. It is also harder to hand-hold.
A lot of people use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake. I don’t do this for three reasons. First, I have a serious illness (cystic fibrosis) and my breathing isn’t good. Carrying a tripod and monopod on top of the heavy camera and spare lens really tests my breathing, so I tend to avoid it. Second, I find tripods or monopods tend to restrict your viewpoint. You set it up and then can’t be bothered to adjust, particularly if you are close to the insects, which means that you aren’t as flexible with your viewpoint, and consequently with your background, lighting and everything else, as you can be if you hand hold. Finally, the problem with insects is that they are often moving, or what they are perched on is moving, and a tripod doesn’t help with this at all.
The other thing worth considering is a circular polarising filter – this allows you to make adjustable changes to the way in which reflections are handled in your pictures. Particularly when photographing over water, it can be nice both to show reflections and also minimise them, for example when you are trying to get a picture of an ovipositing female dragonfly.
Finally, it is worth learning how to use the non-auto features on your camera: aperture-priority to control depth of field in your pictures, shutter-speed priority to freeze motion for in-flight shots, and manual focus to get focus on exactly the right plane, exactly on the right part of the insect – usually the eyes, but sometimes the root of the wings or other parts.
Learn how to approach
The first difficulty with insects is getting close to them (apart from mosquitoes, which like to get close to you all the time!). They have good eyesight, and are very sensitive to motion, not to mention sound, vibration and smell. You can’t just go crashing through the grass, waving your camera around, and hope to get a decent photo, or indeed, get anywhere near them. I find the key is to move very slowly, no matter how tempting it can be to get in quickly before the insect goes. It might disappear anyway, but is much more likely to disappear if you rush. It is useful to practice the Tai-Chi way of walking which is quiet and smooth. Also, use the wind, if there is any and time your movements to coincide with gusts of wind. It is also worth learning how to squat or kneel very slowly, quietly and smoothly – doing very slow squats isn’t easy, particularly with a heavy camera. It is worth practising this without taking photos, until you can do it well.
Remember, they can smell you too – so it might be worth remembering this when preparing to go out and avoiding things like smelly hair dressing, perfume, deodorant and of course, insect-repellent.
Viewpoint and Background
Once you have made the effort to get close to the insect, it is tempting to blast off a photo and be happy with that. However you really do need to think more about it than that. What viewpoint do you want? Which bit of the insect do you want to feature? Do you want to see it from behind, from the side, head-on, from below, above or on the level with the insect? Do you want detail on the wings, or do you want the light shining through the wings? This should be in your thoughts as you approach, so that you approach from the right direction, and get yourself on the right level to take the photo.
Likewise, how do you want the background to appear? Do you want it to be a blur, or do you want to show detail? Do you want it to be dark or light, a complimentary colour or the same colour? When you are close to a subject, a very slight adjustment in your position can make a large difference to the background. Likewise, it is easier to blur the background when you are close than when further away (for any given aperture – it is down to distance ratio between subject, lens and sensor). A very slight shift in your position can give the picture a totally different feel, if the subject allows it.
Full-on front lighting is great to show details of the markings and structure of the insect, but try experimenting with other types of lighting including side and back-lighting, because these can give a very different feel, although getting the exposure right is more challenging. Again, worth thinking of this before you approach the insect, so you can get set up in the right position.
Getting exposure right can be challenging. You may have a dark insect with a bright background such as sky, grass or water, or a pale insect against a dark background such as dark leaves or water, as well as challenging lighting, such as side or back-lighting. It is worth becoming familiar with the exposure-compensation button on your camera, and learning to use it without moving your face from the camera. This will allow you not only to make a best guess as to how much compensation is needed, but also to manually bracket the exposure so you get some insurance against having made and incorrect decision. This is something that comes with practice, and is well worth it. As a guide, if it is a dark insect on a light background, I usually over-expose by 2/3 a stop and then adjust – for the converse, I underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop then adjust. You can also adjust exposure to give a particular feel to a picture – over-exposed ethereal, or under-exposed and dark and menacing.
Some insects are surprisingly difficult to judge: butterflies, for example, have very iridescent wings, and it can be hard to judge the exposure. Common blues, for example, often need a surprising amount of under-exposure to get the colours correct, because of the reflections from their wing. Ladybirds, also, tend to look very washed-out at correct exposure because of the reflective nature of their elytra (wing cases).
Learn to see the picture in your head
Finally, it is very helpful to practice seeing in your head what the final picture will look like, after you have taken it and processed it. Visualise what you want to see. What details do you want to see? How do you want the colours to look – bright, subdued, deep and rich, pale and ethereal? How do you want the balance of light and shade to look in the picture? How do you want the background to look – detailed or blurred, bright or dark? Which bit of the insect do you want the viewer to focus on? How can you best compose the image so the viewer sees it through your eyes? Is there anything you can do to draw attention to what interests you about the insect, or the setting in which it is placed? How do you want the viewer to feel? How do YOU feel? Can you convey that feeling in your imagery?
You may disagree
This is my approach. Many will disagree, and many will have their own, different, and equally-successful approach. It works for me. In 2014, a portfolio of my insect work reached the final round of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – not something to be sneezed-at, even though I didn’t win. I hope it has given you something to think about, and provides some guidance for beginners. Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy looking closely at insects, and getting into their weird and wonderful world.
In October 2010, we bought a 9 acre field to add to our 11 acres of ancient woodland. During the early part of 2011, it was planted with 6500 little trees, and we carved out wildflower meadows, hedgerows, ponds in the wet areas, open areas, and areas for natural regeneration to take place. In summer 2011, it was a field populated by canes and tree-guarded, the little trees just peeking over the top of those guards in places.
Seasons came and went. The little trees were subjected to a drought during their first year, an extremely harsh winter in 2012-13 with a lot of snow and freezing weather, and floods earlier this year, during which you could paddle in the lower part of Betty’s Wood.
We were very careful to choose our species mix well. We wanted to improve the site for wildlife, but could see no advantage in planting species that do not grow well in the local area. We also took account of the lie of the land and microclimate – one of the reasons why we didn’t plant trees immediately, but took a few months to get the feel of the place. Wet-tolerant species went in areas inclined to be damp. Species that like fertile soil nearer the top, where the former arable site is quite fertile. Cloning willow already growing on the site. Using self-set seedlings of birch, willow, oak and ash. But also choosing species that produce seeds and fruits for wildlife, good shelter for wildlife, and will produce a sustainable coppice and timber crop in future – hazel, willow, alder, oak, ash, cherry, rowan and others.
It has not been all plain sailing, but the woods are really starting to shine now. Instead of walking in a field with sticks, we are now walking along young woodland paths. We can stand in the shade of our own little trees. We can sit with our backs against the trunks of these little trees and enjoy the view. The little trees offer shelter from the wind for insects and people alike. The ponds are really coming alive, with 16 species of dragonfly and damselfly seen here this year. Target species of butterflies have come into our meadows. Little birds are now perching in the young trees, particularly goldfinches and blue tits. Long-tailed tits and other birds are using our hedgerow as a pathway between our own woods and another piece of woodland, just as we hoped. We are producing an increasing quantity of hay for local horses. This year we harvested hazelnuts from our young trees for the first time. Leaf litter is starting to build up in places under the clumps of trees. In the wet areas, marsh orchids and cowslips are spreading and increasing in numbers.
It is not often that you get the opportunity to change the landscape, and make something that is both beautiful and functional. We were very privileged to be able to do this and it is very exciting. Every year turns up some surprises. What is particularly lovely is to see the self-set regeneration areas merging with the planted areas, possible because of what we think is a good choice of trees and careful attention to the landscape, soil and microclimate. It will not be long before we can take our first coppice cut in some places, nor will it be too many years before we can lay the hedge. It is truly becoming a woodland, as we hoped it would.
Our second year of making hay from our meadows at Alvecote Wood. Five days of very hard work, but very lucky with the weather. We got 153 bales this year (141 last year) and sold and delivered it all to the stables next door to the woods.
This is a video of the whole process. It gives you an idea of what we have been doing over the past few days.
The phrase “cute” doesn’t usually apply to insects – furry and feathery creatures are often considered cute, but insects? I think it is a question of how you view them, interact with them, and present them in your pictures.
Interact with insects? Obviously, insects will fly off when disturbed, but can you really interact with them? Certainly with damselflies, I’ve found it possible to play a game of peek-a-boo, the damselfly hiding behind a stem or leaf, and rotating round to try and stay out of sight, while peeking with one eye to see where I am.
Butterflies, too, can interact. Perched on a flower, they may be trying to decide whether or not to trust you. If you move a bit closer, the fore-wings may extend a bit, ready to take off, and then be tucked away again when you back off. If they really trust you, they may go on feeding, allowing you to get pictures of their long extending proboscis and tongue.
Ladybirds are another interactive insect – again, often hiding just out of reach of the camera, stopping to assess the photographer, clean their face, and potter off on their business.
I think insects can be really very cute indeed, and that it is certainly possible to interact with them. Try taking a closer look – you might be surprised!